Examining some institutional issues and challenges


Why is the governance of biodiversity important and why are we discussing it?

Environmental issues are quite widespread and complex. They do not typically follow the Westphalian concepts of sovereignty and the spillover of crises often transcends border and impacts regions that had no role to play in this. In an interconnected and interdependent world, countries unilaterally taking measures of their own accord to deal with these crises is not adequate. There is of course the issue of “tragedy of commons” as described by Hardin in his famous 1968 paper, in which he describes the loss of common resource as being due to the fact that every individual entity wants to maximise his or her own value of the holding. One example is that of depletion of biodiversity and how it transcends national borders due to much of it being a ‘common resource’. Therefore, there is a need to govern biodiversity to reduce widespread exploitation of it and protect it for future generations. This article will further highlight the need for governing biodiversity, the actors involved in this governance process, the institutional challenges related to the governance process et al.

Biodiversity loss can be defined as the loss of diversity of species, genes, and ecosystems in a particular defined geographical area. The causes of biodiversity loss could be broadly divided into two main reasons — natural and anthropogenic. Natural reasons such as natural calamities, genetic inbreeding etc and Anthropogenic reasons such as pollution because of GHG emissions, poaching and hunting, destruction of habitat for agricultural purposes. Many of the seemingly ‘natural’ calamities can also be indirectly attributed to human activities such as floods and avalanches caused due to building of dams. The impact of biodiversity loss could be varied depending on the particular entity, ranging from wiping out entire species which could impact the environment to even our own existence.

However, there is no consensus about the biodiversity loss’ existence, its causes and its importance do not create consensus regarding what, when or even whether action is warranted. Different actors define biodiversity in different ways prioritising a variety of issues that suit them. Scientists and epistemic communities have raised concerns by clarifying the impacts of this loss and have proposed solutions but if these solutions are implemented transnationally is another issue altogether. These issues define the need for, facilitate or hinder the formation of the inter-state regime with regards to the governance of biodiversity. In academia too, various schools of thought are conflicted on a variety of definitions regarding biodiversity loss and the need to govern it.

Ronald B. Mitchell (2003) writes neo-institutionalists are most optimistic about regime formation in an environmental context, whereas realists often ignore international environmental cooperation citing issues of relative gains and ‘low-politics’ of environmental issues. This perspective goes beyond just academic understanding of environmental governance and pervades policymaking in biodiversity issues.


Today, several international conventions focus on the conservation of biodiversity which together forms the main global governance mechanism on biodiversity. Some of the main conventions include the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), among others. The heads of the secretariats meet regularly to discuss and enhance coherence and cooperation in the implementation of the various articles of these conventions.

Who are the actors involved in the governance of biodiversity?

Like in every international regime, in the governance of biodiversity too, there are various interests and powers involved, who bring their own discourse and knowledge to the table. However, they are not all equally influential and rather than facilitating cooperation, they can also sometimes become hindrances during deliberations and negotiations of various processes related to the governance.

The various actors involved in the governance process with regards to biodiversity are states, international organisations, NGOs, banking or financing agencies, bilateral and multilateral organisations, global partnerships, various ministries or government bodies, epistemic communities, research centres and think tanks, social movements, private corporations etc. They interact with each other in various ways and capacities.

Mitchel (2002) characterises three main roles of actors in international environmental governance processes, which can be applied to the governance of biodiversity as well:

  1. Clarifying the Problem and its Causes: Actors who understand environmental issues, trends and causes can influence negotiators and policymakers by applying their expertise and competence. If claims of other actors or governments are not agreed by others, policymakers and decision-makers can resort to advise by epistemic communities who are perceived as impartial judges and solicit their information. Peter M. Haas (1992) writes about the influential role played by these epistemic communities by ‘identifying issues for decision-makers or illuminating salient dimensions of an issue from which the decision-makers may then deduce their interests’
  2. Pushing for Problem Resolution: Various actors engage in different types of activities such as lobbying, campaigning, protesting, promoting media coverage to raise awareness or issue salience. Interests groups use a variety of tactics to convince or press policymakers to take action on a multitude of issues.
  3. Designing Policies, Facilitating Agreement and Maintaining Momentum: Policy designing depends on different factors and the desire to negotiate, sign, and ratify agreements are not immune to these factors. Negotiations can sometimes take a long time to conclude as states want to be in the most advantageous position as they are usually uncertainty reducers and power maximisers. Non-state actors have a substantial role to play in this as they can provide local perspectives and knowledge and influence decision making.

So, the various actors play different roles when it comes to the governance of biodiversity. Koutouki et al (2016) write about how the wide range of actors, such as NGOs, international organisations, non-state actors are challenging ‘the scientific model as the only source of credible explanation of how biodiversity works and its importance.’ Even though the epistemic community continues to hold an important place, they argue that the scientific community holds a less privileged position where biodiversity is concerned. They cite Annika E. Nilsson (2011) to discuss further that this does not however imply that a new scientific body for policy dialogue isn’t crucial or without value. The science-policy interface needs to be further strengthened rather than science informing policy directly by taking into concern the societal implications of biodiversity conservation.

Comprehending the power of IOs: The case of Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)

Annika E. Nilsson (2011) writes about the evolution of global governance on biodiversity and the shifts it has undergone focusing on issues of equity, justice, participation and institutional peculiarities. The governance architecture on biodiversity has come to encompass a variety of environmental governance issues through a range of regimes that encapsulate a multitude of overlapping issues. One of the most influential of such regimes has been the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was established in 1993 when states realised how the rapid degradation of biodiversity was contributing to climate change and adequate action had to be to govern this field. Koutouki et al (2016) highlight that the negotiation for this convention was an ‘interesting shift in the way states viewed biological resources’ by discussing how biodiversity and genetic resources were no longer seen as a global commons, as mentioned previously. With the convention in place, states were provided exclusive sovereignty over resources and biodiversity, with a responsibility to protect it within their territory. They also call it ‘a significant turning point in the biodiversity governance discourse’ as developing countries who previously felt marginalized in climate negotiations could now secure their interests through the negotiations in this convention to some extent.

But how does the CBD get the legitimacy to govern these issues of biological diversity come from and how do they wield this power?

Barnett and Finnemore (1999) when talking about theorizing of organizations, highlight two broad strands — economistic, which is based on instrumental rationality and sociological, which focuses on issues of legitimacy and power. Following the former logic, it can be concluded that the Convention on Biological Diversity was created as an instrument to further their own instruments. The interests and preferences of the member states can be aggregated through the strategic interaction that they have through the Conference of Parties.

Michael Zurn (2004) elucidates two concepts of legitimacy in global governance processes — one is normative legitimacy which can be described as ‘the validity of political decisions and political orders and their claim to legitimacy’ and the second is descriptive legitimacy which can be described as the societal acceptance of these decisions and orders along with ‘the belief of the subjects of rule in legitimacy’. In this case, the Convention on Biological Diversity can be seen as wielding normative power as it is a global agreement negotiated by the 168 signatories and 196 parties of the convention. The leadership of the convention is through the Conference of Parties (COP) which reviews progress, identifies new priorities, sets agenda and work plans for the members.

The organs of the Convention of Biological Diversity are as follows:


Click here to listen to Ms. Catalina Santamaria, the Forest Program Manager for the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), discussing how CBD acts as a source of authority and autonomy.

International organizations’ engagement with biodiversity regimes

Nina Hall (2015) describes organizational engagement as when an intergovernmental organization ‘links to, and participates in, another regime without necessarily having a causal impact on that regime.’ In this case, it can refer to a variety of organizational actions, such as publishing reports, developing new projects with the different biological regimes to substantiate links between the host regime (e.g. nuclear energy) and a target regime (e.g, rainforests or wetlands). So, organizational engagement here can be bandwagoning, which is when an IGO links their regime to a biodiversity regime to affect its operations or gain from its resources, or cooperation, where both the regimes mutually benefit from working or engaging in each others’ activities. An example could the coordinated work of FAO and CBD through its programme on “Integrated Management of Biological Diversity for Food and Agriculture”, which focuses on agricultural biodiversity and access and exchange of information on genetic resources.

Click here to listen to Julia Marton-Lefèvre, former Director-General of IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), speak about IUCN’s role in biodiversity.

Investigating further into engagement issues, we also perceive regime fragmentation and institutional interplay. Keohane and Victor (2011) illustrate how linkages contribute to deeper cooperation but also blur the boundaries of an issue area. They explain it further by using the example of CBD which is a broad treaty with minimal impact and the other narrow agreements that encompass specific elements such as regulating the trade of endangered species, coordination of protected areas, stronger IP rights related to biodiversity innovations, et al.

Institutional limitations with regards to the governance of biodiversity

Multiple practitioners in the field have written about the implementation gap between the agreements and actual achievement on the ground which can be attributed to institutional limitations. This could be because of a variety of reasons such as the gap in scientific knowledge, weakness of the science-policy interface, as discussed above, weak implementation of regulations, lack of economic incentives, financing and political will, limited civil society participation, et al. One can also attribute it to the weak compliance mechanisms at the national level which monitor the implementation of the various articles of the conventions.

In conclusion, despite the existence of so many conventions governing biodiversity, the global loss of biodiversity has still persisted. However, each of these conventions can claim some successes and results within its limited scope but they also need to work towards a more efficient realisation of their potential.




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Manoswini Sarkar

Manoswini Sarkar


Presently my blog for MINT038 but I plan to write and publish more!